Oakland – “I want to be a pop idol.” That is Oscar Wilde’s first and only line in the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, director Todd Haynes’ love letter to the glam rock phenomenon that took London by storm, during the 1970s. In the film, Wilde is found on a doorstep, affixed with a precious jewel that is meant to be perceived as otherworldly, furthering the notion that most figures in pop culture that exhibit genius must be from another planet. I’ve heard this theory many times, whether it be in reference to David Bowie, or Oscar Wilde, or Daft Punk – for some reason, when it comes to these figures, some of us just find it impossible to believe that such talent can exude from natural born citizens of Earth; there must be some greater intelligence in the universe that is transplanting these magnanimous talents to our humble planet. Personally, I have toyed with the idea, but in reality I know that talent and perseverance is what drives an artist to greatness, and even the simple statement of an eight-year-old Oscar Wilde saying he wants to be a pop idol is enough proof for me to believe that if you say what you mean, then you can do anything.
I can’t say for sure if Josh Tillman – aka Father John Misty – has ever uttered those words, let alone if he’s seen the film or even read any Oscar Wilde (something tells me he has done both, but I don’t know the guy so I can’t make any concrete assumptions), but I get the feeling that in at least one moment in his life Tillman has dreamed of being a rock star. He left the alternative folk band Fleet Foxes – for which he was the drummer and frequent contributor to the idiosyncratic vocal harmonies – following the release of the band’s sophomore (and as yet final) album Helplessness Blues, vowing to get his solo career off the ground. In the days leading up to the formation of Fleet Foxes, he had tried doing his own thing – under the name J. Tillman – but failed to break through in that venture. In an interview for Rolling Stone, he details a mushroom trip where he climbed a tree in Big Sur, California – a beautiful coastal area a few hours south of San Francisco – and had an epiphany (as one often does while tripping on psilocybin), concluding that he wanted his debut LP under the FJM moniker – 2012’s Fear Fun – to be about the struggles and laughter one encounters relocating to Los Angeles, a city known for its inherent, endearing trashiness, that also acts as an incubator for the elusive ideal of the American dream. Fear Fun saw great success, due to its artistically enthralling arrangements and its honest and often humorous lyrical content. He followed up with last year’s I Love You Honeybear, which embraced a more heartfelt approach in its frankness in detailing the ups and downs of long-term monogamy.
I’ve seen Father John Misty several times over the past few years. I caught him on his very first tour at a tiny club in New Orleans called One-Eyed Jack’s, where he proceeded in taking whiskey shots onstage and mimicked Jesus on the cross while standing on a chair. Since then I’ve seen him at Bonnaroo, Treasure Island, and even on a very short California tour of backwoods venues that he embarked on just before the release of Honeybear. Each time has been different, but as time has passed, he has become more of an icon, a stature that shines through in his constantly improving stage presence. As he graced the stage at Oakland’s Fox Theatre last Friday, his illustrious persona preceded him, filling the air with unmatchable excitement.
This most recent display of FJM’s material was perhaps the strongest I’ve ever seen. The Fox is one of those old movie theatres-turned-venue that pepper our landscape, decked out with gorgeous décor and brilliant acoustics. Not only was Tillman’s set truly captivating, but also apparently his label (the celebrated indie label Sub Pop) pulled out all the stops for the visual support on his latest tour. The lighting was incredible, pulling down softer tones for the softer numbers, like set opener “Every Man Needs a Companion” and “Nothing Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” while more up-tempo songs like the bluegrass-tinged “Tee-Pees 1-12” saw a more frenzied display. Especially arresting was FJM’s second song of the night, the breakthrough single “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” which saw Tillman backlit by a sinister glow of red and orange lights that poured out from below the drum set directly behind him at the rear center of the stage.
Misty’s set – much like man himself – was incredibly nuanced as always, drawing from his limited yet already classic catalog. The crowd was treated to several songs taken from Fear Fun – “Now I’m Learning to Love the War,” “This is Sally Hatchet,” “Only Son of the Ladiesman,” and the one-two punch of album opener “Funtimes in Babylon” followed immediately by “Nancy From Now On” – as well as some favorites from I Love You Honeybear, including “Holy Shit,” “True Affection,” and the pensive and cheeky “Bored in the USA,” whose studio version features a laugh track, lovingly imitated by diehard fans in the front of the house. Misty closed his main set with the title track from Honeybear, which had all the drunk dudes in the back grasping each other in manly, affectionate chokehold hugs as they shamelessly belted out the lyrics. He happened to play my two favorite songs – Honeybear’s gorgeous and adorable “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” and Fear Fun’s hilarious drug-addled nightmare “I’m Writing a Novel” back-to-back, which was an absolute delight.
Misty’s presence onstage seems to blossom each time he performs. The first time I saw him in New Orleans, he was almost too incoherent to perform (which he blamed on the city’s freeing atmosphere), but this time he was cool, collected, and focused. During the few songs where it was just him at the microphone (while his backing band provided instrumentation), he would use every muscle and joint in his wiry, lanky frame to accentuate his lyrics, sometimes falling on his knees and “preaching” to the audience (as he did during “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”), while other times he would let loose into a manic dance that invoked images of Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, and Jim Morrison as he galloped across the stage like a marionette, his arms flailing and twisting like kelp in a tsunami.
Misty’s three-song encore beautifully encapsulated not only the overall tone of the evening, but also Tillman’s whole FJM persona, starting things off with him solo on acoustic guitar performing Honeybear’s album closer “I Went to the Store One Day,” before gracefully sashaying into an unexpected cover of Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better,” lifted off of her most recent LP ANTI. He closed down the night with the raucous, blistering “The Ideal Husband,” which had the audience practically moshing as he screamed the vocals into the microphone, the strobes lashing the crowd as he stomped across the stage, playing to each side over the course of the song’s five minutes.
Father John Misty seems to get better with age, like a fine French Pinot Noir. A lot has changed since his first tour – his beard is longer, his voice is clearer, and he’s got a richer sound under his hat. Despite those changes, the heart and soul of Misty remain as sassy and stalwart as they have always been, and that’s what really counts. Since he is a well-known goofball, I think many were expecting some sort of silly antics or banter, considering the show fell on April Fool’s Day, yet both were noticeably absent – the only words he really spoke to us were his final “thank you” at the end of his set. His performance on this tour is stronger than ever – with production to match – and his vocals have never sounded better. Whether he foresaw it or not, he has become a pop idol – just like Oscar Wilde and David Bowie and Iggy Pop before him – and his confidence and invigorating chutzpah make him a joy to behold on the stage. We eagerly await LP #3, though it’s hard to believe that it can get any better than this.